Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

On the backroads between Faribault and New Prague October 10, 2018


A MONTH AGO, before the grey of this too rainy autumn settled upon the southern Minnesota landscape, Randy and I followed the backroads from Faribault to New Prague en route to a brewery. We enjoy craft beers and wanted to check out Giesenbrau Bier Company, billed as a German style bier hall and garten.

I am directionally-challenged when roads are not prairie grid perfect. Randy knows this about me. It’s also a source of frustration when I am unable to read a map. Yes, we still rely on paper maps and atlases. But “just drive” seems more Randy’s philosophy. He’s always confident of eventually reaching our destination.

In no particular hurry to get there on this Sunday afternoon, we took some paved, some gravel, roads, occasionally stopping to observe and, for me, to take photos. At the time I jotted down locations, but have since misplaced my notes. We were somewhere northwest of Faribault, well off the interstate. I prefer this type of travel which allows for a close-up look at life.





From a town hall to a grasshopper,






from a lake to the detail of bordering cattails,





from a cornfield to a weathered corn crib to the cobs inside, I notice the overall picture and then the details.



Along the way we often come across small delights. Scenes that remind us of our rural roots. Scenes that remind us that life does not always need to speed, that afternoons like this are meant to be savored.



At one point, Randy parked the van along a gravel road so we could watch a couple baling hay. Not with a massive tractor and baler, but with a small tractor and an old-fashioned baler spitting out rectangular bales. Just like we remember from the farm. When the tractor reached the end of the field, the lean farmer leapt off the trailer and headed toward us.



“You looking for work?” he joked. We told him we’d pass, that we were former farm kids who understood the hard work of baling hay.





We continued on toward New Prague then, winding our way to the bier hall, then to a nearby park for a short walk before taking backroads home,





past another farmer baling hay and an aged barn with a new metal roof and a sturdy rock foundation.



I noted then that we should drive these roads again when autumn hues colored the hilly landscape somewhere between New Prague and Faribault. That would be now.

TELL ME: Do you drive backroads? If yes, where and what have you seen?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Make hay while the sun shines & the poem it inspired June 20, 2016

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Baling hay, 17 southern Minnesota


OF ALL THE TIMES not to have my telephoto lens attached to my Canon EOS 20D. But I didn’t, so I missed a close-up shot of three guys baling hay the old-fashioned way on Sunday afternoon in rural Rice County. No over-sized tractor, no round hay baler. Just a basic tractor, hay baler and hay rack.

As the farmer guided machines along a windrow, the baler compacted alfalfa into twine-wrapped packages. A team of two grabbed the rectangles, stacking them in a practiced rhythm of precise placement.

It’s a scene imprinted deep upon my memory. As I briefly watched the trio working the field, I remembered my father and Uncle Mike doing the same so many years ago some 120 miles to the west. I remembered taking lunch to them, sitting in the shade of the hay wagon, eating summer sausage sandwiches, breathing in the intoxicating scent of hay.

Make hay while the sun shines. It’s as true today as it’s always been. The trio laboring in the heat and humidity of Sunday afternoon understood they were racing against time, against the predicted rain that would come that evening.


The scene I photographed reminds me of a poem I wrote several years ago. It was published in the 2012 edition of Lake Region Review. Enjoy this poem, based on my childhood memories from rural Redwood County, Minnesota:


Taking Lunch to the Men in the Field

Three o’clock. Lunch time.
My brother grips the tarnished handle
of the rusty red Radio Flyer as the wagon bumps
along the dusty dirt drive, dipping and curving
past the cow yard mucked with mounds of manure,
toward the stubbled alfalfa where the men are making hay.

Out mother has stowed sandwiches—
slices of coarse, yeasty homemade bread slathered in butter
with rounds of spicy summer sausage slid in between—
inside the tin tub next to chewy oatmeal peanut butter bars
wrapped in waxed paper, nudging brown beer bottles
that jostle and clank as the wagon rolls.

She’s packaged the lunch in a crisp white cotton dish cloth
embroidered with Wednesday Wash Day
and stitches of clothes clipped to a clothesline,
mimicking the laundry she’s hung out earlier,
now stirring in the wisp of a July prairie breeze.

My brother and I lag under the heavy heat of the afternoon,
straining toward the men working the field.
Dad, shaded by an umbrella, guides the International along the windrows
while our bachelor uncle heaves hay bales onto the flat-bed trailer,
his chambray work shirt plastered against his back,
his grimy DEKALB cap ringed in sweat
as he toils in an unbroken rhythm of labor.

We reach the edge of the field as the men finish their round
and the racket of tractor and baler ceases
giving way to our small voices which break the sudden silence:
“Lunch time. We are here with the beer.”

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Poem copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling